November 25, 2015

The Pittsburgh Steelers have handled the absences of offensive stars all season long and lead the AFC wild-card race. The Seattle Seahawks have learned they'll have to do the same for a prolonged period as they attempt to climb into favorable position for an NFC bid.

Running back Marshawn Lynch will miss a second straight game and figures to miss three or four more, but his team is coming off one of its more impressive rushing performances heading into Sunday's home game with the Steelers - and his replacement has proven to be the far more effective option.

Lynch underwent abdominal surgery for a sports hernia Wednesday, and the time frame that places his return inside a month is considered best-case scenario. There's a chance that Lynch will miss the remainder of the regular season, in which case Seattle (5-5) will hope Thomas Rawls has much more of last week's performance in him.

The undrafted rookie from Central Michigan ran for 209 yards on 30 carries in last Sunday's 29-13 home win over San Francisco, giving him 604 yards on 101 carries compared to Lynch's 417 on 111. Coach Pete Carroll says it's likely Lynch will retain the starting job upon returning, but Rawls' 5.98 yards per carry is difficult to ignore.

"He's done very well and been consistent," said Carroll, whose team ran for a season-best 255 yards against the 49ers on 44 carries. "Whenever he's been given a real good shot, he's come through in a big way."

Pittsburgh's defense figures to be a more difficult test. The 49ers surrender 4.28 yards per carry, while the Steelers (6-4) have posted a 3.84 mark and gave up 15 yards on 14 carries in their 30-9 win over Cleveland on Nov. 15 leading into a bye.

The Steelers will have Ben Roethlisberger starting for the first time since a 38-35 Week 9 home win over Oakland after he replaced an injured Landry Jones in the victory over the Browns. He's hopeful he can play Sunday without the padded boot he wore to protect his sprained left foot against Cleveland.

With it, the quarterback was 22 of 33 for a season-high 379 yards with three touchdowns. While Roethlisberger helped the Steelers to 459 yards of total offense and they've posted 528.0 per game over consecutive wins, he'll be up against a Seattle defense that ranks second in the NFL at 303.6 yards per game.

"I have a great appreciation for that whole defense," Roethlisberger told the team's official website. "Their defensive ends, their front seven really get after it. Their secondary locks people down. I don't have to play against them to respect them. If you want to be the best, you have to play the best."

While that includes the likes of Richard Sherman at cornerback, Roethlisberger's receiving options are in top form. Antonio Brown has 27 catches in his last two games, which is the fourth-highest two-game total in league history. No. 2 option Martavis Bryant, who missed the first five games because of suspension and injury, had a career-high 178 yards receiving and his fifth touchdown in the last contest.

They'll of course remain without top running back Le'Veon Bell for the remainder of the season, but DeAngelo Williams has filled in admirably. In the last three games, the veteran has averaged 134.7 yards from scrimmage and 5.57 per rush, though the Seahawks have limited opponents to 3.74.

After playing six of their first 10 at home, things are about to get a bit more difficult with trips to Seattle and Cincinnati sandwiching a home game against Indianapolis. After the Bengals, Pittsburgh hosts Denver, then travels to Baltimore and Cleveland to conclude the season.

But the Steelers lead the wild-card race and suddenly find themselves two games back of Cincinnati for the AFC North lead.

"We are in the thick of things," said coach Mike Tomlin, whose team has won four straight against the NFC. "We understand that. We are not what we desire to be. We could be better. We could be worse. The reality is we know enough to know that we need to be focused on the task at hand. We don't have to look outside the stadiums."

The Steelers have won the last three meetings with the Seahawks, including consecutive shutouts and a Super Bowl XL victory before that, but the Seahawks have won the last four matchups in Seattle with the latest coming in 2003.

The Seahawks' playoffs hopes don't have quite the same straightforward path as Pittsburgh. Seattle, winner of three of four, is three games back of streaking Arizona in the NFC West, two back of Minnesota for the top wild card and a game behind Atlanta, so a fourth straight playoff appearance will require a strong six-week run.

Including last season's Super Bowl loss to New England, the Seahawks have dropped three straight to the AFC.

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